Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sheer Shadows and Mischievous Mystery

A typical graphic novel is told in pictures and in words, but what if the story was actually two stories: one through words and one through images? Brian Selznick did it with surprising grace, and now Kiersten White and Jim DiBartolo have done it with In The Shadows, and the result is pretty awesome. 

Cora and Minnie's mother runs a boarding house where they all live together. Minnie has an insatiable desire for adventure (bordering on the side of reckless), while Cora prefers to play it safe, except when Minnie calls her out on her stuffiness and she has to live up to her little sister's expectations. But after Minnie convinced Cora to climb a tree and peer into the witch's window and she got caught, she has never been the same. Her father died the very next day, and Cora knows it was a curse the witch put on her. Arthur was brought to live with them over a year ago after his father disappeared, but the girls suspect there is more to the reason Arthur is with their family. When Charles and Thomas arrive for the summer, the group bands together, all for different reasons, but all for the hope of some fun (at Minnie's direction). Especially when Charles' illness and imminent death is a weight holding Thom down. 

When they visit the witch's house all together this time, Cora is more than just a little nervous. In fact, she is terrified, but the others convince her it will be fine. When they see the witch, Mary, they aren't prepare for what they witness- she hangs herself right in front of them. When they report it, however, something scary happens- her body isn't there anymore. When they see her again in town, she is with the scary man from the boarding house... and a woman Thom is convinced he heard speaking to his father right before he was sent to the boarding house. Something very mysterious is happening in this sleepy little tourist town, and Minnie and the others are going to get to the bottom of, regardless of the risks.

Half this story is the one I have just described. It is written in short chapters like any other typical story. The other half of the story is written in illustrations and follows an entirely different set of characters. I haven't described the illustrated story because it isn't easy to describe it without giving away too many important details needed for the end of the story when everything comes together. But they do, and when they do, it is pretty gosh darned awesome. My biggest issue with this book throughout the entire story was that I had absolutely no idea what was happening in the illustrated story- until the very very end. Now, in hindsight, I can see it was designed that way and that is what made it such a cool story, so I should have just had faith in the authors. 

Another thing I struggled with was the ages of the kids. One moment they struck me as definite middle schoolers. Precocious, adventurous, and usually reckless abandonment regarding concern for consequences. But then the next moment they felt a little older, like young adults. It made them difficult to understand completely. While Minnie was the fun, impish, mischievous one, Cora and Arthur were the ones I really liked. Unfortunately, the story is really brief, so you don't get to spend a lot of time getting to know any of the characters very well. The important thing to know, though, is that this is one serious mystery! It was really a nail biter right to the end, and I did not see it coming. I really liked this story, and I hope White and DiBartolo give this format another shot!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Elite and Ticked Off

We all carry our scars around, and they affect every decision we make, but what if every scar was on the outside? In Marie Lu's The Young Elites, the malfettos suffer the shame and ridicule and persecution of their entire society thanks to a plague that scarred them but didn't take them. But society isn't ready for those who survived and have become The Young Elites. 

The plague ravaged the world, killing the adults it touched. Many children survived, however, they were left far from unscathed. Many were deeply scarred. They are now called malfettos, the abominations. To make matters worse, some malfettos have developed abilities that rival the supernatural. While Adelina's father was appalled to have a daughter who was a malfetto, he at least would have preferred her if she developed powers and was of any use to him. Instead, she was completely useless and a shame to their entire family on top of that. When she runs away after he sells her as a mistress to a local business man, they are both surprised to discover that she is indeed talented, even though her talent wasn't one that could help him...

Scheduled to be executed by the Inquisition, Adelina isn't going to fight her fate, but when the Young Elite rescue her, she finds out dark secrets she never thought could be true. Enzo, the leader of the Dagger Society (Young Elites) is the malfetto prince the royals said had perished. Now he wanted the throne back from his greedy, cold sister and her malfetto lead Inquisitor. To be part of the Dagger Society, Adelina must prove her worth, but her powers are dark and mysterious. She feels a connection to most of the Elites, but even they are unsure how her powers will play out. As she advances, so does the war on malfettos. Children and harmless women are dragged into the street and executed, but the Daggers have to pick their perfect moment to attack. If they don't, they could lose everything. 

While I really loved Lu's first series, Legend, it had some moments that ran a little slow. After reading the first book in this series, it is clear Lu has gained a little experience under her belt and chose to pick up the pace, because this was one heck of a book! This historical fantasy goes above and beyond to hold a readers attention, and Adelina is the ultimate of anti-hero. She doesn't fully understand her power, but she does know she likes the strength it gives her over others. She isn't a bad person by any means, but after years of torture at the hands of her father, she definitely has a well-deserved dark side. But she is also kind and caring. She loves her sister unconditionally and will go to great lengths to save her, even test her own limits of right and wrong. And her relationships with the different Elites are so different and unique, you see layer and layer of depth within Adelina's character with each page you turn. 

The story itself is also unique while still being familiar. Super powers in young adults? Not terribly original. The way Lu does it? Pretty freakin' great! My only concern was the lack of real world building, which was a problem in her last series as well. If a world is developed on the page in the same level of detail as in the writer's head, I should be able to picture what each scene looks like, but with Lu's books, I often find myself surprised by a piece of the setting because it doesn't fit with other details I have gleaned. That means there are definite gaps in what she is giving us. It is a fine line between too much and too little world-building, and that is one thing Lu should work on for the sequel to Young Elites. Everything else she has in spades!

Until it Gets Its Talons in You

Adolescence should be a time for freedom, rebellion, and learning about who you are, but if you are part of Talon, your life is never yours. In the first book of Julie Kagawa's new series, Talon, a unique young woman fights rules and restrictions like every young teen, except she is the furthest from a normal teenager as one could be. 

Ember Hill is unique. She has a brother. It is very rare for a dragon to have a sibling hatched alongside them. Dante is her best friend, but not only because they have been hidden away by a secret dragon society for most of their hatchling years. She trusts Dante completely. Now she and Dante are being moved to California to learn to assimilate with the humans so they can eventually live among them without detection once they are trained for their careers in Talon. Talon understands that if humans knew about the dragons, they would hunt them to extinction, so they protect their hatchlings and their way of life. Although they haven't been able to keep their existence a secret from everyone. An equally secret order of humans called St. George lives and dies by hunting dragons. They know they have to do away with female dragons and hatchlings to keep the next generation from taking over the world. All this is important to Ember, obviously, but what she really wants is one summer of freedom and "normalcy" for a girl her age at the beach. Unfortunately, her summer, like her life, is anything but normal. 

Ember and Dante's human guardians have strict rules, but it doesn't mean they aren't allowed to have some fun. Ember loves her freedom as much as she loves the beach and surfing. Since she isn't allowed to fly under any circumstances while she is off Talon controlled property, surfing is the closest she can come to that feeling of exhilaration. When she meets a boy named Garrett, she can't help but be drawn to him, even if her inner dragon is screaming at her to run away. But Garrett has a secret, too. As an elite member of St. George, he has been sent to California to find the new hatchling their sources say has been infiltrating the town. He suspects Ember, but he has always known dragons don't have siblings. That, among other St. George facts, might be completely wrong. For Ember, everything she knew about Talon might be wrong as well. This is a story about two young adults who come from opposite ends of an ancient war who really know nothing about the sides they have been born into fighting for. 

I really love Julie Kagawa's books. I still haven't read her lengthy Fae series, but her vampire series was a breath of fresh air in a genre that is stuffed with "same ole, same ole." Now she takes a dragon story and makes it fresh, new, and exciting! I loved how Ember was going through the same kinds of struggles as any teenager: boys, friends, parties, feeling stifled by rules and restrictions, etc., yet she was as different as different can be. It made her relatable yet completely interesting, and I absolutely loved it. She was even stubborn and petulant at times, just like every teen we know and love. I also loved Garrett for the same reasons. The only character who was really flat for me was Dante. I just couldn't get over how unwilling he was to even consider there might be other answers out there that contradict what Talon always told him. He was naive and unimaginative, and therefore, I found Ember's devotion to him difficult to tolerate. 

The story itself never had a dull moment, and you will find yourself questioning everything right alongside Ember. She is inquisitive and skeptical, and I think a lot of teens will really relate to her, even if she is a mythical flying reptile! Kagawa has done it again with this story, giving readers an exciting and thrilling story that when it ends, you will find yourself screaming, "NOOOO!" because you just want MORE! Loved it!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Happily Ever After with Bumps Along the Way

The story of the School of America in Paris continues with two new characters who are intertwined with the lovable characters you never wanted to give up in the previous two books. In Isla and the Happily Ever After, Stephanie Perkins does what she does best: she gets you to love two human and lovably flawed characters you can't live without even after the last page is turned. 

Isla has always had a crush on Josh her entire time in Paris. Unfortunately, he has never noticed her. Or so she thought. After a chance encounter, it appears she may have misjudged Josh all along. And he has definitely misjudged her relationship with her best friend Kurt. With all the information set straight, Isla and Josh start spending more and more time together, and their connection is undeniable to everyone around them, even friends like Kurt who begin to feel like the third wheel in a whirlwind romance. 

Like most real adolescent romances, not the kind in books, Isla and Josh's future is uncertain and paved with bumps and bruises. Isla is used to life with Kurt, her socially awkward but devoted best friend who can spend the night in her room and not set off any red flags. She is used to always being herself and having Kurt, who has Asperger's, tell her the truth even when she doesn't want it. But a relationship is different. Especially when she already has one very important person in her life. And Josh's life is no easier. The son of a politician engaged in a fierce campaign, his antics have landed him on his final warning at the school, and expulsion would most certainly embarrass his family in ways only the son of a politician could understand. But Josh is daring. And he can't resist showing sheltered Isla a little taste of the world, even if the consequences could tear them apart. 

This is a romance story for the realist in you. Don't expect a perfect story all wrapped up in a bow, but then again, if you like real characters who could be your own friends and family in all their flawed glory, this is the right romance for you! Stephanie Perkins has been as special to me as Sarah Dessen for a long time, and I waited what felt like an eternity for this book, and I wasn't disappointed, but I was definitely surprised by it! Perkins' realism is standard, but this relationship felt so real for two teenagers, I was actually surprised! While some might be turned off by this approach, I also think there are enough teenagers out there who are interested in seeing their own bumbling, awkward, passionate, life-or-death feelings aren't abnormal. Do you remember what it meant to be a teenager in love? I was strange, exhilarating, awkward, and fabulous all in one breath. And that is why I loved Isla so much. It was like being transported to that place all over again (without having to be the actual punching bag for emotions and hormones we all were! So much more fun from afar!).

There was this one part where Josh sends Isla his comic book memoir, and it truly chronicles everything in his life- even the girls before Isla. It is so honest and vulnerable, yet the unforeseen consequence was that it was more than Isla really wanted to know. Just the idea that Josh would bare his soul to her and not see how hurtful it could be to an insecure young woman was so real, it was palpable. This is just one small example of why this book was such a great story for all those young adults in your life. It may look like a cushy romance on the outside, but once you get into the thick of it, you realize just how special the story is. Perkins hits another one out of the park!

Dust, Decay, and Devotion

In the world after an apocalypse, life will revert back centuries. A day will revolve around the sun, work will be for survival, and modern medicine, like vaccines, will be a forgotten luxury. In Mindy McGinnis's sequel to Not a Drop to Drink, she takes the apocalypse one step further in the fight for survival. In a Handful of Dust doesn't stop at simple survival, like finding food and water. It takes these characters through something far scarier. 

Lynn used to shoot anyone who dared to walk near her pond, the only healthy water source nearby, and a guarantee for survival, at least in a world where water is difficult to come by. Now she has a whole civilization around her pond and even adopted Lucy, a girl whose family was lost to the apocalypse in the worst kinds of ways. They have a fairly decent life, given the circumstances, until people start to get sick. When a polio outbreak threatens the community, and Lucy is targeted as a possible carrier, Lynn has no choice but to go with the young girl when the community insists she leave to protect them from the illness. 

With no real knowledge of the world outside her property, but still a stubborn determination to survive, Lynn decides to head to California to see if there is a place unspoiled by the water shortage. As they pick their way across the country, they encounter all manner of people. Some mean well but are clearly suffering and struggling to survive. Others are capitalizing on the circumstances and thriving in the wake of such devastation. Regardless of the obstacle in their path, Lynn refuses to give up. She and Lucy will get to California, even if it kills them. And it just might.

I really loved the first book in this series, and this second book was just as great of a read with the exception of one huge, glaring flaw- its entire premise. Lynn isn't just a stubborn survivor. She is a smart, logical woman who understands how to survive and how to weigh the pros and cons of every decision. We saw her be ruthless when she needed to, and we saw her compromise when it was the best decision. But one thing was for sure. Lynn did not take kindly to the unknown and her home was her home. So why on earth would it be so easy to displace her from her own darned property?! I understand McGinnis wanted the story to be about the journey, but the part where Lucy and Lynn are pushed out is so rushed, it doesn't do justice to Lynn's character. There is no way Lynn would leave her own property and her pond without any kind of a fight, but that was exactly what she did. It felt too much like a quick plot device than an actual development in the character, especially when you see how she is on the road- same old Lynn. Logical, sometimes ruthless survivor. 

That annoying flaw in the story aside, this was a very interesting book. The characters they met on the road were realistic and interesting. They were varied and different, and some were downright terrifying. I also loved the differences between Lucy and Lynn. When Lynn can be cold and pragmatic at times, Lucy is kind and trusting. The dichotomy between the two was the perfect duo to cross the country in such dire times, giving the reader two different perspectives on the world. It was a good sequel, albeit not a perfect sequel, and it would still leave me interested in whatever McGinnis chooses to write about next!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Rise from the Ruin

Leigh Bardugo hit the fantasy genre with a mallet with her first book in the Grisha series, Shadow and Bone. The series never lost its momentum, and with this final book, Ruin and Rising, it ends with power and force and a conclusion that befits such a phenomenal series. 

The Darkling has won. Alina has two of the three amplifiers which make the Sun Summoner a Grisha like no other, but with the uncertainty and instability of the world at large, she is being hidden away underground where her ability has no hope of doing any good against the Darkling's forces. She can use the sun's force to fight his shadows and monsters, but not while she is trapped underground. It might keep her alive, but Alina is no longer satisfied with just remaining alive. She wants to get the world back from the Darkling and end the darkness he created forever. Especially when she is being kept underground by the power-hungry Apparat who likes having the Sun Summoner under his thumb. 

When Alina, Mal, and their loyal Grisha friends break free, the hunt for the final amplifier, the Firebird, proves to be more difficult than they ever could have imagined. With secrets behind the Darkling and his creation revealed, there is more to this hunt than Alina expected. She wants to save the world from the Fold and the darkness inside it, but what is she willing to sacrifice in order to do it? The conclusion will answer that question in a way you never saw coming...

I have loved this series from the first book, and it never once let me down. This is high fantasy in its ultimate incarnation, and you won't regret taking the time to read the Grisha trilogy. There are twists and turns and bumps and bruises along the way, but by the time you get to the end you will be so excited with the conclusion and so simultaneously sad to see the series end, you will want to reread it immediately. It might be expected to some, but I was whole-heartedly taken aback by the twist at the end, and I hope you will be too.

Alina is truly amazing in this series, but Mal is the true character you won't want to give up with the last page. There is something so loyal and amazing within him, even though we all struggled with him in the second book at times. You feel he is really human, not just a flat character on a page. Sometimes you love him and sometimes you are really angry with him. Even though I imagine many people struggled with Mal's character, it was that humanity that made me love him more. 

I loved this series so much, and I just can't wait to see what Bardugo does next. Can. Not. Wait!

Monday, December 22, 2014

It is the End... Or Is It?

Some things are never as they seem, and After the End, by Amy Plum is no exception. A story within a story that leads to another story, this is one post-apocalyptic tale you haven't heard before... because nothing is as it seems. 

Juneau was raised to be the next Sage for her community. Using the earth and its energy, the Sage can communicate in a way completely foreign to the humans of the past. Then again, much of the post-apocalyptic landscape after devastating World War III would be foreign to the humans of the past. Juneau's parents, among others, escaped the war-torn wasteland to hide and survive in an isolated area of Alaska. They live off the land and with the land. But when Juneau's entire community disappears while she is on a hunt, along with the sighting of a helicopter- a piece of technology that should be long gone with another way of life, she knows she must find them. 

Meanwhile, there are a lot of people looking for Juneau. When she makes her way back into the United States, she doesn't find what she expected. Life is carrying on normally. In fact, it appears there never was a war. Determined to find her parents, cynical, skeptical Juneau picks her way through the country looking for her people. When she comes across Miles, she has no use for the disrespectful boy, but he has a reason to go along with her- he wants to help capture her and curry his father's favor. While Juneau doesn't trust him, she also isn't aware of the depth of his deceit. The only thing she cares about are her people. 

I was totally surprised by this book! I expected your typical post-apocalyptic story (clearly didn't read the description too carefully before starting it) and I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and differences of the story. I even really liked Juneau- a girl completely out of her element in the modern world after growing up surviving in the Alaskan wilderness. It was refreshing and even comical at times to see her trying to make her way with so little knowledge of survival in a world of technology.

My one confusion was Miles. There are these moments when Juneau really feels drawn to him, and I just don't get. Usually I like the wise-guy with a heart of gold character, but Miles didn't have that redemption for me. Instead he seemed like a pompous, self-serving little twit most of the time and his few moments of unboorishness were so few and far between they left me undeterred in my original opinion of him. Overall, I liked this story and there were a lot of unanswered questions that I look forward to exploring in the sequel. I just hope Miles stops being such a darned twerp!

Idols not be Idolized

We take our freedom and role in the world for granted, but what would you do if humans were no longer the controlling species on earth anymore? One of my biggest fears developed, Icons is the story of an alien invasion and the world that develops around their arrival. 

Dol survived the day. The day the Icons came to Earth, they destroyed land and lives in their efforts to swiftly and violently take over the planet. They succeeded. Now, Dol, Ro and the other survivors hide in the lands beyond the grasp of the Lords who provide the Icons with manpower for the work to be done. While being a Lord is certainly an easier life it also means selling your own kind to a life from which they never return. Dol has always been intrigued by electronics and other mysteries from the time before the Icons, but she never thought there was more to her life than hiding. 

When Dol and Ro are taken, they are brought to the Embassy Headquarters. It is there that Dol realizes just how different she and Ro really are. Meeting Lucas and Tima leads to one very clear conclusion- they are all unusual and special in a way that humanity has never seen. Dol can control people's emotions. Ro can agitate people. Lucas and Tima have other talents, but Lucas is also the son of the Ambassador. Together, they learn more about the world than they had ever expected, and it isn't promising...

We first met Margaret Stohl with Kami Garcia in their Gothic supernatural story, Beautiful Creatures. When authors collaborate before you have read their independent work, there is always the nagging question of what they would be like without their co-author. I was always very curious about this pair, because some of Creatures was brilliant while other pieces were a struggle (ending much?!). Now that I have read a book from Garcia and a book from Stohl, I have to say I think Garcia is the stronger writer. Not that this was a bad book or uninteresting, although it certainly suffered from some dry, difficult spots. Instead, it just wasn't as good as Garcia's Legion series, which really never had a dull spot. 

It's hard to put my finger on what exactly the problem was for me. I liked Dol well enough. She didn't annoy me or anything, but she also wasn't the kind of heroine I wanted to fight for. She was just ok. The only character I truly loved was Tima, and we just don't see enough of her. I guess this book just had too many dull spots that made it difficult to trudge through to the next exciting part, but I am still planning to read the second book. I hope Stohl is able to get her groove back by then!